FAITH AND THE GOSPEL
“For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
“Being justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1).
Scripture presents faith to us in more aspects than one. It is sometimes called hearing, sometimes knowing, sometimes believing, or receiving, or trusting. Strictly speaking, it is simply the belief of the truth, yet it is referred to throughout Scripture under these different names. These may be said to be its different stages, and it is useful oftentimes to lay hold of it at each of these and contemplate it under each of these views. They are not in reality the same thing, yet they illustrate the same thing, they point to one object. The things we hear, the truth we know, the tidings we believe, the gift we receive, the Being we trust may be different in one sense — yet in another they are the same.
Some adopt one aspect exclusively, some another, so that the object itself is lost sight of. Some particular definition is fastened on and elevated to such prominence as to become little better than a party watchword (furnishing much matter for self-righteous pride and confidence).
One person glories in what he calls his simple views of faith, spurning every other idea of it but what he calls “the bare belief of the bare truth.” Ask such, “Where is your childlike confidence in God, where is the resting of your soul upon Jesus Himself as the resting place? You are making a savior of your faith, an idol of the truth. You are just as self-righteous and proud in your ‘simple views of faith’ as is the mystic whose religion you profess to shun. Your God seems to be a mere bundle of abstract propositions; your savior a mere collection of evangelical phrases, which you use as the shibboleth of a sect.”
Another goes to the opposite extreme overlooking the simplicity of faith. He undervalues the truth. He is wholly occupied with some mystical actions of his own mind, trying to exert himself to put forth some indescribable efforts which he calls “receiving and resting on Christ.” Say to such, “You are on the road to mysticism. You are occupied with your own self, with your own actions and feelings. You are making a savior of them. You certainly need more simple views of true faith. You need to be called down from self-righteous perplexities about your own acts, to the precious word of truth which you are despising, as if it contained no comfort for you unless you are conscious of connecting certain acts of your own to it.”
From this you will see how it is quite possible to admit the full meaning of those words in Scripture which speak of confidence, and trust, and rest, etc.; while, at the same time, we rejoice in those other expressions which represent faith as an “acknowledgment of the truth,” and the salvation of the sinner as the result of his “coming to the knowledge of the truth.” It is quite consistent with Scripture to represent peace as flowing from confidence in God through Christ, and yet as rising from “believing the record which God has given of His Son.”
Without attempting to give a definition of faith, let me say in a few words that any faith which goes no farther than the intellect can neither save nor sanctify. It is no faith at all. It is unbelief. No faith is saving except that which links us to the Person of a loving Savior. Whatever falls short of this is not faith in Christ. So, while salvation is described sometimes in Scripture as a “coming to the knowledge of the truth,” it is more commonly represented as a “coming to Christ Himself.” “Ye will not come to Me that ye might have life”; “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.”
But whatever view of faith we take, one thing is obvious; that it is from first to last “the gift of God.” Make it as simple as you please, still it is the result of the Holy Spirit’s direct, immediate, all-quickening power. Never attempt to make faith simple, with the view of getting rid of the Spirit to produce it. This is one of the most wretched devices of Satan in the present evil day. By all means correct every mistake in regard to faith, by which hindrances are thrown in the sinners way, or darkness thrown around the soul. Show him that it is the object of faith, even with Christ and His cross, that he has to do, not with his own actions of faith; that it is not the virtue of merit that is in his faith that saved him, but the virtue and merit that are in Christ Jesus alone. Tell him to look outward, not inward for his peace. Beat him off from his self-righteous efforts to get up a particular kind of faith or particular acts of faith in order to obtain something for himself — something short of Christ to rest upon. Simplify, explain and illustrate faith to such an one, but never imagine that you are going to make the Spirit’s help less absolutely necessary.
This is what the aim of the propagators of the new theology seems to be. Their object in simplifying faith is to bring it within the reach of the unrenewed man, so that by performing this very simple act he may become a renewed man. In other words, their object is to make man the beginner of his own salvation. He takes the first step, and God does the rest! He believes, and then God comes in and saves him! This is nothing but a flat and bold denial of the Spirit’s work altogether. If at any time more than another the sinner needs the Spirit’s power, it is at the beginning. And he who denies the need of the Spirit at the beginning cannot believe in it at the after stages — nay, cannot believe in the need of the Spirit’s work at all. The mightiest and most insuperable difficulty lies at the beginning. If the sinner can get over that without the Spirit, he will easily get over the rest. If he does not need Him to enable him to believe, he will not need Him to enable him to love. If when a true object is presented to me, I can believe without the Spirit, then when a lovable object is presented I can love without the Spirit. In short, what is there in the whole Christian life which I cannot do of myself, if I can begin this career without help from God? The denial of the Holy Spirit’s direct agency, in faith and conversion, is the denial of His whole work in the soul both of the saint and the sinner.
But is it not said, “Faith cometh by hearing”? Certainly. And who doubts the blessed truth? How can there be faith where there is not something to be believed? “There is an inseparable relation between faith and the Word, and these can no more be torn asunder from each other than rays of light from the sun” (John Calvin). But does this mean that hearing alone is necessary to the production of faith? The words in the original explain this, “Faith arises out of what we hear, and what we hear comes to us through means of the Word of God.” Who then would say anything but what the apostle does here?, viz., that the foundation of the truth is what we hear (literally, a hearing, or a report). But does this exclude the Spirit from His work in preparing the soul for believing what it hears?
Having said this much as to faith itself, let a few words be added as to what it receives, “the glorious gospel of the blessed God.” That which we preach, and which faith believes, “is the glad tidings of great joy.” It is God’s testimony of His own character, His declaration of His gracious mind towards the sinner, the utterance of His manifold yearnings over His lost and long-wandered offspring. That which we make known is the story of Divine love. We tell men that there is such a thing as love in God towards the sinful; that this love has found vent to itself in a righteous way, and that all are welcome to the participation and enjoyment of this love. We show them how God has opened up His heart to let them see what riches of grace are there; and how He has done a work on the earth by which we may measure the infinite dimensions of that gracious heart. This is the good news we bring, the tidings we present to the sinner to be believed, to be rejoiced in with joy unspeakable and full of glory. And this gospel is free, truly, absolutely, unconditionally free. It is without money and without price, making known the exceeding riches of God’s grace. This news shows us how these riches are pouring themselves freely upon all this fallen world. It shows that there is not only grace in God for sinners, but also that that grace has found vent to itself and is flowing down in a righteous channel to unrighteous man. It tells us that the darkness is past, that the true light has arisen upon the world. It tells us that the veil is torn from top to bottom, that every sinner may go freely in; that there is forgiving love in the bosom of the Father; that every sinner, without exception, is invited to avail himself of it. It points each wandering eye to the Cross, that it may read there the Divine compassion towards the rebellious, the unholy. The good news comes to every man, inviting him to partake of all the fullness of God.
“Shall we tell men that unless they are holy they must not believe on Jesus Christ; that they must not venture on Christ for salvation until they are qualified and fit to be received and welcomed by Him? This would be a forbearing to preach the gospel at all, or to forbid all men to come to Christ. He is well qualified to come to us, but a sinner out of Christ has no qualifications for Christ but sin and misery…. Shall we tell people that they should not believe on Christ too soon? It is impossible that they should do it too soon. Can a man obey the command of the gospel too soon or do the work of God too soon?… If he should say, What is it to believe on Jesus Christ? As to this, I find no question in the Word, but that all did some way understand the notion of it. They all, both Christ’s enemies and disciples, knew that faith in Him was believing that the Man, Jesus of Nazareth, was the Son of God, the Messiah and Savior of the world, so as to receive and look for salvation in His name. If he still asks what he is to believe, you tell him that he is not called to believe in Christ, nor that his sins are pardoned, nor that he is a justified man — but he must believe God’s record concerning Christ; and that this record is, that God gives to us eternal life in His Son, Jesus Christ, and that all who with the heart believe this report and rest their souls on these glad tidings shall be saved.
“If he still says that believing is hard, ask what it is that makes believing hard for him. Is it unwillingness to be saved? Is it a distrust of the truth of the gospel? This he will not dare admit. Is it a doubt of Christ’s ability or goodwill to save? This is to contradict the testimony of God in the gospel…. If he says that he cannot believe on Christ, and that a Divine power is needed to draw it forth, which he does not find within himself, you tell him that believing on Christ Jesus is not a work, but it is a resting on Jesus Christ; that this pretence is as miserable as if a man who was weary from his journey, who was not able to go one step farther, should begin to argue that he was so tired that he could not even lie down to rest — when in fact, he could neither stand nor go” (Robert Trail, Scottish preacher).
But I may be asked, How is all this freeness consistent with Christ’s substitution for His church alone? I answer that the gospel is not, “Christ died for the elect”; neither is it, “Christ died for all.” But it is, “Christ died for sinners.” It was thus that the apostles preached and that men believed. Any reader of the Acts of the Apostles can see this. They preached the glad tidings in such terms as these: “To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). Or again, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins. And by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (13:38-39).
The passage in 1 Corinthians 15:3 is often appealed to as a proof that the apostles preached everywhere that Christ died for all…. We have a full account of their preaching in this book of Acts, and nothing of the sort is stated there. But, in regard to this passage … how is it possible to extort such a declaration out of it? The apostle went to Corinth. He stood up in a city of heathen. He cried out, “Christ died for our sins.” He did not say, “Christ died for all and everyone”; no, he did not say, “for your sins”; he simply said, “for our sins.” Now, not wishing to restrict the gospel, nor to make it appear as if it were not literally and actually for all but noting that the words here are plainly restrictive, we might expect to hear some caviling hearer in the way say, like some modern objectors, Oh! He does not preach the gospel. He says that Christ died for our sins, but he should have said that Christ died not only for our sins, but for the sins of all.
The man who lays stress on what he calls the gospel upon all, upon me, or on the other hand, upon the elect or the church plainly does not believe the gospel as the apostles did. And the man who, in believing, is turning his whole thoughts to these words, is going aside from the tidings themselves. He is thinking of nothing but himself and the bearing of the gospel upon himself alone. He is losing sight of the glorious revelation of Himself, which God has made in the gospel; and he is only concerned about that part of it which he thinks includes his own salvation.
But how is this? You will ask. For the obvious reason that it is not with the work of Christ as a work done especially for myself that I have to do with in the first place in believing. But first, I must recognize it as a work which opens up to me the grace of God. It shows me that there is such a thing as grace, or free love to sinners. It is the pledge of its reality and the measure of its extent and dimensions. Whether we suppose it to be work done for many or few, still it is the declaration of God’s free love, and it is that free love that is the sinner’s resting place. The real question that troubles an anxious soul is in substance this: “Is there free love in God, free love reaching even to the vilest? Does He have such a free love that no amount of sin can repel or quench? Is there enough of free love to reach even to me and to remedy a case like mine?” The work of Christ settles all these perplexities, and yet in settling them it does not raise the question, “Was the work done especially for me?” any more than it raises the question, “Am I elected, or not?” It is the meaning of that work to which an inquirer has to look in the first place, not to its ultimate and particular destination. He who understands the character of God as the Lord God who is merciful and gracious will not be disquieted by the subtle suggestion of the evil one to ask, Am I elected? So he who understands the work of Christ, which is the grand exposition and opening up of the character of God, will never think of putting the question, “Was that work especially intended for me?” Apart from such a question, that work contains enough to remove all his fears. -Horatius Bonar